Public won’t pay to reduce wildfire risk near Starwood | AspenTimes.com

Public won’t pay to reduce wildfire risk near Starwood

Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams

ASPEN – A project that will reduce the fire risk on public lands near the exclusive Starwood subdivision near Aspen will have very little cost to taxpayers, the top official in the White River National Forest said this week.

Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said the proposal to remove 3,000 dead or dying trees on 251 acres adjacent to Starwood is a legitimate project that has moved up on the U.S. Forest Service priority list because private funding is available. Starwood and the nonprofit National Forest Foundation will cover the costs, which include preparation of a plan and review by the Forest Service, he said.

Fitzwilliams stressed that the project will not detract from efforts elsewhere in the 2.3 million-acre national forest to deal with trees killed by pine beetles.

The project was unveiled by the Aspen Ranger District in late November as part of the effort to collect comments from the public. The proposal captured the curiosity of the Pitkin County commissioners at a Dec. 1 meeting. They wanted to know how the project would be funded and why Starwood was selected among all the areas in the national forest.

“I want to know what goal it advances for the entire forest, or Pitkin County,” Commissioner Michael Owsley said at the meeting. Other concerns were raised about traffic and noise.

The county raised legitimate questions, Fitzwilliams said, and the Forest Service should have done a better job of providing information to the commissioners. Aspen District Ranger Scott Snelson will schedule a meeting with the commissioners to discuss the project and other efforts to improve forest health on federal lands in Pitkin County.

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Starwood is a gated subdivision on the shoulder of Red Mountain, northwest of Aspen. It contains princely palaces and various-sized mansions on large, wooded lots that are adjacent to the national forest. The Starwood Homeowners Association has done a good job of treating lodgepole pines trees that have been killed or infested by mountain pine beetles, Fitzwilliams said. The homeowners have a legitimate concern about national forest adjacent to their property.

“On our side of the fence, it looks quite a bit different,” he said.

Starwood is in what’s known as the urban interface, or the contact zone between forest and civilization. Those areas are often at the greatest risk of being affected by a forest fire. A fuel reduction project has been discussed in that area for years.

“It was put on the back burner, not because it’s a bad project but because of priorities,” Fitzwilliams said.

The Forest Service has limited funds for fuel reduction projects. Most of the funds available in the White River National Forest have been funneled to projects in Eagle and Summit counties, which have been hit much harder by the beetle infestation than Pitkin County. For Pitkin County, the Starwood project is a relatively high priority, Fitzwilliams said. It advanced on the priority list this fall after Starwood representatives and the National Forest Foundation said they would fund the project.

The forest foundation’s website said it engages Americans in community-based and national projects that promote the health and public enjoyment of the 193-million-acre national forest system. A representative of the organization couldn’t be reached Tuesday to discuss how the Starwood project got on the national organization’s radar.

The Forest Service launched formal review of the project in November and will begin work in May if the plan is approved internally.

“The majority of timber harvesting will occur in the first year, removing approximately 2,200 dead trees and 200 trees infested with mountain pine beetle,” says a letter to interested parties. The trees will be hand-felled by ground crews and hauled out to private land by helicopter. No roads will be built. The trees will be trucked out via Starwood subdivision roads and county-owned McLain Flats Road.

Fitzwilliams said there will be 20 or so truckloads of timber removed via roads because of the project. The traffic impact will be less than a typical construction project on a home in Starwood.

“It’s not a big project at all,” he said.

An open house on the plan will be held at the Eagle County building and El Jebel Community Center in El Jebel from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 16. Additional information about the project is available from Travis Bruch of the Forest Service at 970-625-6849.

Comments on the project should be submitted by Dec. 31. They should include the name of individuals or organizations and a contact number, the title “Starwood Fuels Project” and specific facts supporting the position.

Comments can be mailed to Travis Bruch, 0094 County Road 244, Rifle, CO 81650; or they can be e-mailed to wrnf_scoping_comments@fs.fed.us using Starwood Fuels Project in the subject line.

scondon@aspentimes.com

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